What one beautiful line can do
July 16, 2014
Why Ian Frazier cries every time he hears the last words of Stonewall Jackson.
“Let us cross over the river, and rest under the shade of the trees.” In his book Family, Ian Frazier confesses that he cries every time he hears or reads aloud those last words of Confederate General Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson.
In the staccato rhythm of the words I can see each step of the action. The sentence ascends in terraces to rest and peace, it undoes knots inside me, it exhales like a sigh. I can see the shining, whorled river sliding by and the gently rising bank and the shaded grass trodden down after a day-camp picnic, across the river and under the trees. I see the columnar trunks almost in a row and the high ceiling where the leaves begin and the sketchier clouds and sky somewhere above. And then I get kind of carried away and I extend this landscape indefinitely in every direction and I imagine it as the new good place America in its best moments has hoped to be …
Before the Civil War, America didn’t know if it was a country or lots of different Promised Lands. People invented the America they wanted to live in and then struggled to live there. Across the river and under the trees combined all these invented countries into one. Across the river and under the trees descended like a beneficence in the last moments of a fierce man’s life and crystallized his fierceness into purity. Across the river and under the trees carried no demurring subclauses or riders. It included us all—people that Jackson considered infidels, men he would have shot unblinking in life. Across the river and under the trees was poetry to equal the nation-making poetry of Lincoln, and the only line of public poetry to come from the South during the war. Even though Stonewall Jackson fought for the Slave Power … and though the flag of his cause still scares me when I see it on the radiator grille of a truck in my rearview mirror and though I am more than glad his side lost, I dream of across the river and under the trees.